Paint-by-Numbers

dan robbins

Dan Robbins, the inventor of painting-by-numbers, who has died aged 93. Photograph: Jim Newberry/Alamy.

For art critics, painting-by-numbers was, and is, a byword for robotic repetition and unoriginality…

(Jonathan Jones, “From Warhol to minimalism: how painting by numbers revolutionised art,” The Guardian, 4-5-19)

At some point in my pre-teen years I was given a paint-by-numbers kit. I vaguely recall doing the little project and being pleased, as well as fascinated, by the result. I may or may not have done another kit — I simply can’t recall. I’ve never connected this humble experience with my lifelong interest in, and sporadic practice of, painting. Having found stimulation in paint-by-numbers, even as a youth, seemed like a lowbrow thing to confess. When I have thought of it, however, and with no reputation to protect anyway, I’ve remembered my brief career as a painter-by-numbers with affection.

The more so now, since I’ve encountered this tribute to Dan Robbins, the man who invented paint-by-numbers. I did not know this history of the thing. In the photograph Mr. Robbins looks like a thoroughly likable man who is enjoying a good joke. Having a taste for parody myself, I like the fact that his invention started as parody, but ended up just being damned fun for a lot of people.

I also did not know that Andy Warhol had paid homage to the paint-by-numbers phenomenon. I have cautious respect for Warhol and a certain appreciation for his work, though I haven’t an inkling as to how silkscreening works. I have found on occasion that mention of Warhol can elicit expressions of loathing by serious artists, some of which seem oriented as much toward things he said as toward things he did. I’m not competent nor inclined to take a position in these interesting discussions.

warhol paint by numbers

[From BBC Front Row, “Transmitting Andy Warhol” linked by Jonathan Jones] Andy Warhol, Do it Yourself (Seascape), 1962 © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / ARS New York / DACS London.

With respect and affection, however, I salute Dan Robbins, dead at 93, for inciting my own pale practice of “robotic repetition and unoriginality.”

(c) 2019 JMN.

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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4 Responses to Paint-by-Numbers

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    I did some lions once with paint my numbers, and also quite enjoyed it. Even now I can remember how much I liked the smells of some of the paints, and the array of subtle colors. It’s not the proper way of painting, but, you still think about color and must notice the forms. It’s probably pretty good for beginning art practice.

    The problem with Warhol, like Duchamp, is just how overrated he is, and all the stuff he’s associated with, such as artists being a celebrity, and making money being the highest form of art. Robert Hughes on Warhol is very amusing. Even Warhol fans must admit that on the surface his work is vacuous or superficial — and deliberately so — in which case any meaning or depth has to be provided from context or some other understanding. There’s no inherent substance.

    Jonathan Jones is a contender for the worst art critic, along with Jerry Salz. I just quoted him yesterday saying that anyone who knows how to paint is a relic from another world, and the shift from visual art to conceptual was “completed” in the 20th century. It is perhaps one of the most vile eructations of any critic.

    Also, with the paint by numbers, it gets people using brushes, and working on hand-eye coordination. I think there’s a lot of good in it.

    • JMN says:

      Hi, Eric. Good to get your comments! I don’t Jones or Salz as critics, know just a handful that I recognize by name when I encounter them. I don’t think they’re your favorites either — Roberta Smith? Schejldahl (sp?)? Also Hodding Carter, or Harding Cotter? I like your phrase “vile eructations”! Bilious belches! I honestly don’t know how to take or not to take Warhol, but that also applies to other moderns who have reputations. How did he transfer those big photographic images to surfaces and transmogrify them into “paintings”? It may be that I’m more curious about his form or technique than about his content. But I’m too busy with my turnip patch to even try to winkle out for the moment what conceptual art is about.

      • Eric Wayne says:

        I think Warhol just used the standard silk-screen processes of the time.

        Don’t forget Robert Hughes. He’s the one art critic I really like. Also like some Donald Kuspit. Schejldahl, like Salz, and mostly cheerleaders for the big gallery and museum shows, IMHO.

      • JMN says:

        I’ve made note of Hughes and Kuspit. Thanks for tipping me to them. I’d like to be more aware of the critics. I’ve gotten curious enough to look into silk-screen just to see how it works (or worked).

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